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NBA Power Ratings And Playoff Odds: OKC Woes And Resurgent Heat

Despite an abundance of March Madness coverage here at FiveThirtyEight this week, fear not: we didn’t forget about NBA Power Ratings. The short version of how these numbers work: Each team is ranked according to a projection of its strength over the upcoming week — and the upcoming week only — using Real Plus-Minus (RPM) player ratings provided by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. For more details on the methodology, see our introductory rankings post.

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A few thoughts for this week:

  • The Oklahoma City Thunder have been plagued by injuries all season long, a trend continued by Monday’s news that Serge Ibaka will undergo surgery to address soreness in his knee. Ibaka’s +3.8 short-term RPM rating ranks 28th in the league, so taking him out of OKC’s lineup and replacing him with an average player would drop the Thunder by 3.0 points of power rating. Making matters worse, low-rated Enes Kanter figures to see a corresponding uptick in playing time, a further blow of 1.0 point to Oklahoma City’s power rating.
  • Speaking of the Thunder, they currently have a playoff probability of 78.4 percent, according to our simulations. On the one hand, that’s quite a drop from the 92.7 percent mark they sported in our projections two weeks ago, a dip fueled by the loss of Ibaka and the ongoing absence of Kevin Durant. On the other hand, some might think that probability seems much too high, as the injury-riddled Thunder are clinging to the West’s final playoff spot by a mere half-game over the New Orleans Pelicans. So why does OKC get the nod in our simulations? Despite all the injuries, they still have a slightly superior power rating to the Pelicans; the Thunder also face an easier schedule over the remainder of the season.
  • A week ago, I noted that the Miami Heat seemed to be fading rapidly, dropping from a playoff probability of 93 percent on Feb. 2 to 29.5 percent on March 9. But over the past week, the Heat have seen their postseason odds improve dramatically, and now have essentially a coin flip’s chance of making the playoffs. Although they only went 2-2 in the past week, they project to be much healthier going forward, with Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside all seeing big playing-time boosts (and Michael Beasley seeing a big dip) in our system.
  • The Atlanta Hawks continue to rank lower here than you’d expect from their season-long power ratings, which speaks as much to the importance of Kyle Korver as anything else. Korver carries a +4.6 short-term rating, 14th-highest in basketball. So his projected absence this week due to a broken nose costs the Hawks 1.9 points of power rating if he’s replaced with an average NBA player. (And in reality, many of Korver’s minutes will go to Kent Bazemore, whose -3.3 RPM is far below average.)
  • Going into this week, the tank-tastic Philadelphia 76ers had claimed either last or second-to-last place every time we issued our rankings. But the Minnesota Timberwolves have now dipped below Philly (but not the Knicks!), thanks to day-to-day injury statuses for Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic — and more playing time for the low-rated trio of Justin Hamilton, Chase Budinger and Zach LaVine. As an aside: How bad has LaVine (who carries an NBA-worst short-term RPM rating of -7.1) been as a rookie this season? He’s not quite as far from the mean in a negative direction as LeBron James is in the positive direction (+8.9), but LaVine is roughly as far from zero (in the opposite direction) as Chris Paul (+7.0) and Kawhi Leonard (+6.8)!

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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